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5 Healthy Responses to a Loved One's Addictive Behavior

By: Andrew McNaughton LCSW CADC

A loved one’s addictive behavior can quickly become our own problem for which we make ourselves feel responsible. Whether the behavior involves alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, pornography, eating, stealing, hoarding, or any other potentially destructive compulsions, when it becomes problematic for the individual, it will likely become a problem for their family and friends as well. Learning to cope with a loved one’s addictive behavior—both in and outside of individual or family therapy sessions—starts with how we choose to manage our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions towards them. The SMART Recovery Family and Friends Handbook provides some clear guidelines, “for people affected by the addictive behavior of a loved one,” to utilize their power of choice and self-management. Some of these helpful approaches include:

1. Managing Feelings: A core concept utilized in SMART Recovery and taught by many family therapy counselors is Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (“REBT”), which emphasizes that we cannot control the thoughts, feelings, words, or actions of anyone other than ourselves. The urges to feel responsible, guilty, betrayed, used, or even angry are all valid and understandable,; however, we have the tools to dispute these feelings by using REBT to ask ourselves what are we telling ourselves in reaction to our loved one’s behavior. Rather than damning them or ourselves, demanding changes, or feeling we cannot tolerate the behavior, REBT coping tools remind us that we cannot control someone else’s problems by giving into our own irrational thoughts and feelings (See my previous blog to learn more about REBT).

  1. Assertive Communication: Rather than allowing ourselves to respond to conflict using unhealthy communication styles (passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive), assertive communication empowers us to be honest and direct with ourselves and others, even when not under the guidance of a counselor during family therapy sessions. We can express preferences for our needs to be met as well as communicate our attempts to respect their preferences. We can identify our concerns with their behavior while also being willing to own our mistakes. Assertive communication techniques emphasize clear disclosure of our preferences rather than keeping them to ourselves, and can significantly decrease the chance of our verbal expressions being interpreted by our loved ones as being directly or indirectly antagonistic, improving communication outside of family therapy.
  1. Setting Boundaries: Healthy and rational responses to an addicted loved one are nearly impossible without setting boundaries. These are rules and limits for our own thinking in response to the actions of others, sometimes created during family therapy or with the help of a counselor. Sometimes this can be defined by identifying what is the least we can live with and for how long, assertively communicating this to our loved ones, and then enforcing our own limits when we feel pushed beyond them.
  1. Planning for Safety and Support: Isolation and vulnerability are commonly felt by family and friends, not just the addict themselves. Resources are available for those with addicted loved ones including Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and SMART Recovery Family & Friends, but it is also important to reach out to our own social supports outside of individual or family therapy to enhance a sense of security and reduce risk of threats to our safety. If the relationship with our addicted loved one has become violent, we can protect ourselves through safety planning for ourselves, our children, our pets, and our property.
  1. Practicing Self-Care: Even if we are fully invested in helping our loved one through their struggle with addiction, we likely will not be able to help them if we do not first help ourselves. Self-care is a broad concept, but at the very least requires being gentle with ourselves, emotionally and physically, by giving ourselves opportunities to relax, and even feel joy, without the burden of guilt or anger towards our loved ones.

I encourage you to utilize resources cited in this article, and if you feel you would benefit further from professional guidance in either individual or family therapy sessions, Symmetry Counseling Chicago can provide this from one of our relationship experts. Contact us online or call to schedule an appointment at one of our two Chicago locations.

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